Antique Quilts in the Twenty First Century –Collections and Exhibitions:
An Insider’s View
Shelly Zegart,- a renowned curator, author, appraiser and broker
whose quilt collection is now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is
a co-founder and Past President of The Alliance for American Quilts.
This article was first published in Selvedge Magazine in 2004.
By all accounts, the quilt revival that began in the late 1960’s is still going strong. It has recently been reported that more than twenty million people are currently involved in the business and creation of quilts. Quilt Festivals are happenings all over the world and people are taking quiltmaking classes at a furious pace. What does all of this activity mean for collecting and exhibiting antique quilts?
Through more than twenty five years of working with various quilt documentation projects, as an appraiser, collector, consultant and broker of fine quilts, I became familiar with most institutional and private collections. Asked by Nihon Vogue in 1998 to author a publication, “American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces” as a guide to public and private collections in the United States for quilt aficionados, led to research into more than one hundred and fifty collections both public and private.
In 1992 as moderator for a conference on Collecting at "Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt.", research led me to the facts that only a few institutions collected quilts in the late nineteenth-century. Some included The Concord Museum of Concord, Massachusetts; The Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts; and The New York Historical Society of New York, New York. The majority of large public collections began in the early 20th century. In 1910, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City acquired its first American bedcovering.
A few early private collectors included Electra Havemeyer Webb, a pioneering collector of Americana, who founded the Shelburne Museum, and Florence Peto, a famous quilt author and collector. In 1952, the Shelburne Museum opened; that same year Mrs. Webb began planning an exhibit of quilts, textiles, and women's needle arts. More than fifty quilts from her personal collection went to the museum.
Collectors before the 1970's emphasized age, historical association, workmanship, and beauty. Their quilts were usually kept in families or donated to local historical societies or museums. It wasn't until the mid-1970’s that quilts became a category of collectable American folk art.
"By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of collecting quilts and coverlets for their genealogical value alone was almost entirely a thing of the past," says John Howat, then chairman of the Department of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in his introduction to the book on their collection in 1990. "This was the era of appreciation of the quilt as graphic art. The overall visual image of the quilt when it is hung on a wall is what collectors came to value most. Quilt collecting became acceptable, even fashionable." In less than thirty years, thousands of quilts went from the ragbin to the walls of museums and art galleries. Despite the fickle nature of public appreciation -- especially for the arts -- this escalation is virtually unprecedented. During this period, great public and private collections developed. Even corporations -- Philip Morris, Esprit in California, AT&T, Goldman Sachs, Chase-Manhattan Bank, Bank of Boston, and Levi-Strauss began to collect.
When quilts began to be taken seriously as art, specialized dealers emerged. After seeing quilts in magazines and at exhibitions, people started buying them, and the business of quilts took off. Dealers have been the main source of information for collectors at all levels, generously sharing their knowledge. This is certainly true in the area of quilts. Quilt dealers have written some of the best books about antique quilts Some of them have collected, exhibited and published including America Hurrah, Darwin Bearley, Sandra Mitchell, Julie Silber and Thomas Woodard. They were there from the beginning of the explosion of interest in quilts and watched the market grow from the time in the 1960’s when one pieced or appliquéd quilt cost five dollars and a Pennsylvania Amish quilt was less than fifty dollars, to the present day, when choice examples can sell for as much as one hundred thousand dollars.
For most of the 1990’s it seemed to me that collecting quilts had lost its glow. The quilt market was seriously affected by the downturn in the art market at the end of the 1980’s and then the antique quilt market encountered another “adjustment ” because of a flood of reproductions of American antique quilt treasures made in China This effort was encouraged by museums, excited to find new markets for their ever increasing licensing arrangements. The revenue stream for reproductions of museum treasures adds greatly to the income of the institutions. In my opinion, there is a positive side to all of the brouhaha about the quilt reproductions. Because of all of the publicity, in large measure because of an outcry from the quilt world, vintage quilt reproductions popped onto everyone’s radar screen .Articles appeared everywhere about the reproductions and how they were hurting sales for women making quilts in small business enterprises around the country. At the same time, reproduction quilts appeared in every catalogue from Garnet Hill to Sundance. They were for sale in just about every store’s bedding department, and were in abundance at flea markets, for the grand price of around $39.95.Sales were astronomical. Just about anyone could afford a reproduction quilt for their bed. Simultaneously, it was no surprise that the interest in antique quilts took a nose dive. Many dealers went out of the antique quilt business and there were few emerging collectors coming on the scene. However, it was always my opinion that the incredible new visibility for quilts because of the reproduction phenomenon would ultimately save the day. Quilts were everywhere. If people owned and lived with quilts and quilt images, no matter how or where they were made or what they paid for them, interest in the “real thing” would accelerate in time due to the constant exposure. In the world of paintings, you can purchase a reproduction from a young artist in the street outside the museum and you can also buy a print of that painting at the gift shop. Then, there are those people, who lived with the prints or reproductions in their rooms, at school or saw them in public places, whose expanding interest and resources propelled them to want the “real thing”. I predicted that the cycle would take 10 years and ended up being right on target.
The August 2003 issue of the Forbes Collector featured an article titled “Collectible Quilts: Ripe for Rediscovery “and rediscovered they have been. There is a twist, however. The rediscovery and subsequent acquisitions are led primarily by institutions, not individuals. The current trend has resulted in the development of a large number of recent quilt exhibitions and collections, substantially more than were actually taking place at the height of the quilt collecting craze-pre 1989.
In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in exhibiting parts of existing historic collections such as the Newark Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Henry Ford Museum, and there is renewed interest in the establishment or enhancement of institutional collections at Universities. Both have led to a proliferation of publications including many accompanying exhibitions from the extensive holdings at the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska : Wild by Design, Modern Marvels: Quilts Made from Kits,1915-1950 , Reflections of the Exotic East in American Quilts, Fanciful Flowers: Botany and the American Quilt .The titles of these exhibitions begin to tell the story of what can happen when a university makes a commitment to the study of quilts across a wide range of university disciplines. Michigan State University Museum has actively embraced quilts for more than forty years. They also have an impressive list of holdings, exhibitions and publications to their credit. Some of their unique collections include The Michigan African American Quilt Collection, The North American Indian and Native Hawaiian Quilt Collection.
In the mid-1990’s, while writing the Collections book, collectors were queried about further plans for their collections. Their answers led to another prediction that there would be a wave of sales and donations over the next ten years. A number of the early revival collectors were beginning to consider the future of their collections. Some examples included Doug Tompkins, Patricia Smith, David Pottinger, Fleur Bresler and Ardis and Robert James. Most passionate collectors would ideally like to see their collections acquired in their entirety so that their unique collecting vision is maintained. In the early years of the twenty first century this has been indeed the case. The James Collection, the Holstein collection, and the Sara Miller Amish quilt collection have gone to the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska. The Illinois State Museum acquired the Pottinger Collection of Illinois Amish quilts, The Doug Tompkins collection of Lancaster County Pennsylvania Amish quilts are going to the Lancaster County Heritage Center and The Mint Museum of Craft + Design acquired the Bresler Collection. Patricia Smith’s collection went to the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago has acquired twenty four quilts from my personal collection.
A small number of collectors and institutions have now defined what the public views as masterpiece quilts. Quilt collections are not being built one by one but rather from acquiring or exhibiting ready made collections. An early example of the “ready made” collection phenomenon was the 1971 exhibition, "Abstract Design in American Quilts," at the Whitney Museum of American Art, comprised of quilts the Holsteins had collected. It was the first of the private collections gone public. That exhibition never would have come to fruition if two young collectors, with art world connections and resources, had not proposed the event to the museum’s curators and director. The prospect of a "ready-made" collection certainly made it easy for the Whitney to go forward with the exhibition. And, when it went on display, the collection brought quilts to the attention of a sophisticated art world.
In 2002, a stellar group of major art museums have restarted that tradition with another “ready made” collection of quilts that has galvanized the art world .In 2003, they exhibited the collection of African American quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend Alabama that were gathered by Bill Arnett and Tinwood Alliance . The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Its venues include The Whitney Museum of American Art in N.Y., The Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the High Museum in Atlanta and the Cleveland Museum of Art .Articles about the exhibition have appeared in art magazines, including include a powerful article by Richard Kalina in Art in America in October 2003, “The quilts are remarkably powerful and compelling visual statements. They declare themselves viscerally, directly. I believe they are entitled, every bit, as much as a Frank Stella or a Kenneth Noland painting of that period, to lay claim to an unfettered optical reading as well, in other words ,to participate fully in the esthetics of modernism.”
The Gee’s Bend exhibition and its reception by the art world” blew out of the water” the validity of some comments made by Brooks Barnes in a Wall Street Journal article written in Aug 2002 ,titled “Museums Cozy up to Quilts” .In that article, he presents what he thinks are the significant reasons that museums exhibit quilts on their walls. He cites much lower shipping and insurance costs as significant factors. He also noted that “quilts are an easy sell to finicky corporate sponsors who like uncontroversial art” In what was perceived to be a rather condescending article about quilts and museums, Barnes seemed unwilling at the time to acknowledge the “art of the quilt” and preferred to relegate quilts to the “craft” side of the equation when in fact, The International Association of Art Critics honored the Gee’s Bend exhibition for second best Thematic Museum Show organized nationally in 2002-2003…a far cry from the cheaper insurance and shipping rationale espoused by Barnes. This award is the art world equivalent of awards given by the New York Film Critics Circle and Drama Desk.
As public appreciation and awareness increases, institutions will seek more quilt collections. Why? Two reasons: Some collectors have invested 30 years or more amassing collections of great variety, with a keen eye for quality and design. Second, for a display of quilts to be effective, institutions must acquire groups of quilts. Unlike having one or two paintings by a particular artist, a museum cannot simply display one or two quilts. With a collection of quilts -- mostly anonymous in provenance -- they acquire the vision of the collector.
If an institution chooses to gather individual pieces, the curator becomes the arbiter. This poses some other interesting questions. What is the level of quilt knowledge of the curators? What is the obligation of the institution to seek proper advice? What is proper advice? And who is qualified to give it? Until recently, finding a curator who was a textile specialist and who was familiar with quilts was nearly impossible. Hopefully, as quilts become validated within the academically trained art and museum world, the standards used for acquiring other forms of art will also be applied to quilts. Yet, while there is this extraordinary interest in quilts, my own queries to museums actually revealed a decrease in the number of specialized curators in textile departments with quilts. Federal cuts in grants nationwide to art institutions have necessitated staff reductions. Often, these cuts have been within textile departments, which are considered more expensive to maintain.
As institutions continue to play a larger role in quilt acquisition and exhibition, even more questions emerge. How does an art museum deal with requests to see the quilt collection? As there is increasing interest in the study of quilts, how can a scholar gain access to the collections for research? One method institutions have adopted with some success is publishing books on the collection. In that way, the public can learn about the collection without the issues of access, increased staff and handling. Examples of these comprehensive collection catalogues include the Smithsonian's The Smithsonian Treasury of American Quilts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Quilts and Coverlets, the Shelburne's 55 Famous Quilts from the Shelburne Museum, and the American Folk Art Museum‘s Glorious American Quilts. John Howat, in 1990, said in his introduction of the Metropolitan's book, "Over the years an increasing number of collectors, quiltmakers, coverlet weavers, scholars, and textile enthusiasts have asked to see our quilts and coverlets. The Museum staff is not able to accommodate requests to see the entire collection of 119 bed coverings. Only by prearrangement can we show a small number of them to an occasional viewer or allow visitors to make use of the catalogued information kept for study purposes." Howat goes on to explain that the book will provide greater access to the Museum's collection for people who ordinarily would not be able to view the entire collection. Another unique arrangement that will enhance public knowledge of other collections has developed over the past few years. A growing number of museums with quilt collections have entered into cooperative ventures with publishing and fabric companies combining collection publications with reproduction fabric lines based on quilts in the collection. Quilts from the collection of the Michigan State University Museum (Great Lakes, Great Quilts) C and T Publishing and RJR fabrics, the New England Quilt Museum (The New England Quilt Museum Quilts), are examples of this current trend.
Quilt Collecting in America is alive and well in large measure due to of the expanding use of the Internet. The Quilt Index (www.centerforthequilt.org) enables information and images to be shared and accessed by all. The ability to cross search collections is the future for the scholarship. The Quilt Index is an online resource to make information about quilts available to people everywhere, providing unique, unprecedented access to unpublished documentation about quilts and quiltmaking. The Index is a partnership of The Alliance for American Quilts with MATRIX and the Michigan State University Museum, with funding by The National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Alliance for American Quilts, a not for profit founded in 1993, is the catalyst organization that links the world of quilts, scholarship and the general public .Its mission is to document, preserve and share our great American quilt heritage. The Alliance’s broad base of board members and supporters develop exciting projects in partnership with museums, universities and grassroots organizations around the country .Never before has there been such interest in quilts on so many different levels because the greater the accessibility there is to quilts and the information about them, the more people want to learn about them and collect them.